“Consonance” echoes in my head: reading Edward Williams’ 1968 novel Stoner I felt I was hearing my own thoughts. There is more than wishful thinking here. The prose is enviably compelling, but, hubris apart, I find that the narrator’s voice mimicked the inner monologist that, for want of a better phrase, talks my thoughts to me. I know that I am not alone in this. The book’s reissue some years ago occasioned remarkable reviews. A brief look at the Amazon web page that features Stoner will more than confirm that.
The plot of the novel is devoid of grand incident: the title character, a poor farm boy, manages to work his way through the University of Missouri. He develops a great love for literature and has a clear aptitude for analysis and criticism. His mentor, a senior professor, guides him through his dissertation and also manages to divert him from enlisting to fight in the First War. Stoner becomes a brilliant teacher, a hen-pecked, nay pathologically dominated husband, and ultimately a victim of his wife’s malice. She estranges their daughter from her doting father. Stoner’s passionate and liberating love affair with a graduate student collapses, despite great depth of affection, before the pressures of university politics and the threat of scandal. Stoical acceptance balances the support of literature and scholarship as Stoner unselfconsciously finds his way to eccentricity – yet all within the compass of his small university classrooms.
The first part of the novel contains scant dialogue. The narrator is showing us little, telling us all, and telling it is. The scene is an English literature classroom. Archer Sloane, who is to become Stoner’s mentor, skewers Stoner with a demand for an interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnet, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” Sloane reads the sonnet, directing his voice at his pupil: “Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?” Stoner remains silent in a reflection that takes him to a moment of transcendence.
Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nail fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly though the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.
The revelatory moment changes the external world. Stoner’s consciousness registers a pulsing that discovers an interior movement of emotion and understanding hinted out in the invisible flow of blood in his veins. Shakespeare indeed has spoken. Later, studying in his comfortless room:
Sometimes . . . he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him, and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape.[The great characters of literature walk before Stoner.] And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class.
The experience described here, the discovery of the power of literature, so deeply personal and transcendent, echoes what I and I am sure so many others have felt - what I remember being called, fifty years ago, “the concrete universal.” To undergo this makes any defense of the liberal arts redundant. Williams shows the aesthetic experience at once expanding and contracting, opening out and returning to a piercing point. Stoner’s life happens around these moments. In terms of the novel’s unfolding plot, we understand that this is the source, the well, from which Stoner draws his Job-like patience and his self-deprecatory wit. For so deeply reflective a character, he is remarkably unselfconscious – even to the point of frightening off the University President by construing at him some difficult verse lines in Latin – such is the absorption in his teaching.
Stoner is a beautiful novel, restrained and focused, with the inevitability that seems to grow from the very earth that Stoner’s parents worked. There is a confession in the attraction that the book radiates. “Do you hear him, reader?”
About the Author
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.